In an ideal, data-driven world, every product, project, and program would come gift wrapped with its own precise set of goals, objectives, and KPIs. There would be no bad strategy. The rationale would be crystal clear, as would measuring its success.
Bad Strategy Happens
The world is a messy place. There are many occasions when half-baked ideas get greenlit, fuzzy concepts are approved, and individual initiatives are largely disconnected from the corporate strategy. If one even exists at all. These are not the stories we like to tell ourselves, but they’re far too often the realities we face.
A lacking strategy or bad strategy is nothing to celebrate. However, it’s not necessarily a forgone conclusion that it will all fail. In fact, it may even be an opportunity for the lucky/unlucky soul who has one of these incomplete ideas dropped on their desk. But it will require a little research and detective work, some insightful analysis, and a dash of storytelling savvy to bring it all home.
5 Product Strategy Tips from a VP of Product
If and when you find yourself inheriting something with no concrete, measurable connection to the business’s desired outcomes, it’s your job to connect the dots and ensure the product actually ends up being helpful in the end. Here are some pointers for making lemonade from that bag of lemons.
1. Get to the why.
First and foremost, you must figure out why this product matters to the business. The executives who lobbed it your way might have their stated reasons, but those should be taken with a big ol’ grain of salt.
Instead of blindly following orders and assuming there must be a good reason to build what was requested, take a giant step back. Create two columns, and in the first, jot down what’s important to the company.
If there are shared goals, objectives, targets, etc., use those as a starting point. But don’t hesitate to peel back the onion and get to the heart of the matter. Treat this just like you might a customer request for something specific. You must understand why they’re asking for it in the first place. To start, list out everything that matters to the business.
In the other column, start coming up with everything this particular product could do for the business. Do this even if they don’t immediately line up with those corporate goals. It’s not yet time to rule anything out. Just get all the possibilities on the table.
For example, let’s say someone asks you to build out user review capabilities for an e-commerce site. But the only reason they gave was that “everyone else has one.” While keeping up with competitors is a valid rationale, user reviews could obviously offer more benefits than simply checking another box in your competitive analysis table.
In this case, one additional benefit would be increasing confidence for potential buyers. This could lead to increased gross sales, more new conversions/customers, or better search results. Those could then be linked with existing (or even unstated) business goals.
2. Define your own version of success.
If you’ve found yourself with no targets, KPIs, or other measures of achievement, it’s time to draw up your own. While this might feel daunting, it’s a unique opportunity to define your own goals for a change.
Your homegrown KPIs should make sense in the context of the larger business. If the revenue model is based on subscriptions, then “increasing page views” is a lousy thing to track. However, it’d be excellent for an ad-based model. So concentrate on what you can measure that really matters.
At the same time, you want to be sure you’re measuring things relevant and actually influenced by the product in question. While the company’s goal might be landing a strategic set of clients, for instance, your product probably can’t do it by itself as that’s really a sales effort. Ensure anything measuring product success is within the control of the product itself.
Luckily, you don’t have to start from scratch in this area. There are well-established metrics that products and companies rely on. Ones that you can crib from, borrowing what’s best for your situation and dodging any vanity metrics.
Then, once you’ve decided what you’re going to measure, it’s time to pick some targets for your product metrics. They should be a stretch but attainable and realistic. Quantitative measurements are always easier, but a dash of qualitative might be appropriate as well.
You’ll eventually need to secure buy-in from other stakeholders. But now you’re giving them something to react to and OK versus asking them to figure it out themselves. Even if you’re wrong, you’re going to end up with more information than you had before. For a busy executive, this mode of interaction is often preferable. Even if it’s not exactly the most rigorously researched method.
3. But track everything.
Even if you have a pretty good handle on which metrics matter for the product and the business, you never really know what the future holds. Tracking absolutely all data and everything is absurd, but tracking what’s reasonable to the goal will ensure you have flexibility. It’s always a good idea to be sure the reasonable instrumentation is in place for every reasonable data point.
This way, instead of answering “I don’t know” when someone throws a curveball at you, you can at least counter with “we’ll have to run a report on that.” You may even get curious yourself about something that wasn’t originally on your radar, so the more available data the better.
However, how much information you’re communicating and socializing should remain narrow and relevant to those previously identified goals. You don’t want to open yourself up to second-guessing by churning out reams of reports no one ever looks at… until someone does and you’re caught on the back foot.
4. It’s OK to be wrong.
Figuring out what success looks like for a new initiative is an ongoing process. At the start, you’re mostly operating on assumptions. Over time, you can course-correct based on what you’re seeing once real people begin interacting with the product.
But kicking things off on unsure footing can be an extremely uncomfortable feeling, especially if you’re still trying to establish your credibility. So come right out and say that you’re unsure if these are the best ways to measure success. You’ve got to start somewhere, and over time there will be many opportunities to adjust the goals and measures of success.
Making this a collaborative exercise versus trying to perfect it all yourself can also help. Not only are two heads (or more) better than one in this case, but you also create some cover if a higher-up is less than pleased with your proposal.
5. Make a plan to circle back
Since you’re going to market with less than 100% confidence, it’s key to acknowledge this reality and formulate a timetable for revisiting it.
Confirming your strategy’s efficacy, the relevance of your metrics, and the alignment with corporate objectives should be a standard operating procedure. But in these cases, it’s optimal to acknowledge the elephant in the room and establish a cadence and process for how things will be evaluated on an ongoing basis.
Not only does this keep you from barreling in the wrong direction for too long, but it also lets everyone else involved know they’ll have ample opportunity to assess and chime in early and often. This openness to feedback and nimble approach can make any foray seem a little less risky.
Bad Strategy isn’t Unusual
A temporarily aimless product or company might seem like an anomaly, but it’s far more common than you’d think. Old or bad strategies can die off before new ones are happened upon. Business models can fail without the company folding.
We’ve seen far too many examples of companies rising like a phoenix from the ashes of a mediocre existence. In the late 1990s, no one would have pegged Apple to turn into the juggernaut it is today, despite its early successes and subsequent stumbles. And there are just as many cases where a product’s original purpose fizzled out, but an “off-label” use case turned it into a success, such as bubble wrap, which was originally intended to be wallpaper.
You’re also not alone. When we asked product managers how they felt about strategy, plenty of folks didn’t think their company was killing it. 60% sought more clarity regarding their company’s vision, while 40% felt their current strategy communication was pretty average.
A lack of strategy isn’t the same as being saddled with a bad one. You don’t have to fight against inertia and momentum heading in a bad direction. You need to kickstart things and give them a push toward what you hope and believe is a success.
Adopt a growth mindset. Establish a culture that prizes experimentation. Prepare for and accept that failure, missteps, and setbacks may come your way. Most importantly, start somewhere and push forward—you don’t know where you’ll end up until you get there.